Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
My First Wife, By Jakob Wassermann. Penguin Classics, £16.99
Alexander and Bettina Herzog are being hounded by Ganna, Alexander's first wife. At a loss, they seek the help of Joseph Kerkhoven, a psychiatrist. Since Alexander Herzog is a novelist, Kerkhoven asks him to write an account of his first marriage. "It was the age of paste diamonds and shallow minds," Herzog says, recalling his youth, when he enjoyed long walks in the countryside with fellow-bohemians.
Desperate to dedicate his life to literature, Herzog decides to strike a Faustian pact: he will marry into a respectable family, securing an annuity and the freedom to write. Enter Ganna Mevis, daughter of Professor Gottfried Mevis. A wild child, Ganna's intelligence impresses Herzog and, despite his reservations, not least of which is the fact he doesn't love her, he marries her.
The opening pages of this novel by the German writer Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934) are like something out of Chekhov – it's all there, the ennui, the preening etiquette, the intellectual posturing. As the marriage progresses, the tone becomes increasingly neurotic. Seeking shelter from his loveless compromise, Herzog begins a string of affairs, dithering for years until he works up the nerve to ask for a divorce so that he can begin a new life with Bettina, prompting Ganna's madness to burst out of its bourgeois straitjacket.
There follows an endless stream of letters, threats and court hearings. Towards the end, we find Herzog a broken man, writing novel after novel only to line his lawyer's pockets. .
If the book is so painfully heartfelt it is because – as translator Michael Hofmann, who "carved" these 250 pages out of Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence, Wassermann's last novel, explains in his brilliant afterword – the facts correspond to Wassermann's life almost too neatly. Bettina is Marta Karlweis, his second wife, while Ganna is Julie Speyer, to whom Wassermann was married between 1901 and 1915. My First Wife is a devastating indictment of the choices we make out of convenience against our hearts and instincts, and the tragedies that ensue.
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 3 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Casual Vacancy finale review: Superb cast, luscious cinematography - shame about the confused ending
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut